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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters

The Birds of Winter by Steve Volkening

The Boundary Waters area is home to several hundred species of birds. During the summer our woods and lakes seem to come alive with the sights and sounds of these feathery friends. Yet, many of these species are not year-round residents. Like you and all of the canoeists, campers, hikers, and resort guests, they are just visitors. These birds come to the Boundary Waters to feed and raise their young. But when winter approaches, they take to the skies for warmer climates!

After all, it's not easy to survive the frigid below-zero temperatures, and long winters, of northern Minnesota and southern Ontario. But some birds do like to stay. These hardy year-round residents not only survive, but they seem to thrive in this seemingly hostile environment.

Why do some birds remain in the northern forests while others migrate south? By looking at four species commonly found in the Boundary Waters - the Canada Jay, Pileated Woodpecker, Common Loon, and Bald Eagle - we can begin to understand how birds' adaptations to their environment help determine whether they remain all year or become the snow-birds of the bird world.

Let's look first at two species which remain in the Boundary Waters all year:

The CANADA (GRAY) JAY--Perisoreus Canadensis

Nicknamed the ''Camp Robber'' or ''Whiskey Jack'', the Canadian Jay is well known to most people who spend any time in our northern forests. At 10-13 inches long, it is slightly larger than a robin and is gray on its upper body and white on the lower part. With its white forehead and throat, and black patch on the back of its head, the Canadian Jay looks like a giant chickadee. It does lack the crest on its head found on other jay species, however.

Canadian Jays are quite common in northern forests from Alaska, and east to Labrador, and usually nest in conifer (pine) trees. Whiskey Jacks are very tame and are frequently found hanging around resorts and campgrounds. They have been known to go so far as to enter tents and steal food from unsuspecting campers. They will also land on your plate and take pieces of food right in front of you. They have truly earned their other nickname of ''Camp Robber''.

Canada Jays are members of the Corvidae family, which also includes crows and ravens, magpies, and other jay species (such as Blue Jay, Steller's Jay, and Pinyon Jay). Like all corvid's, they have a sturdy bill, which enables them to eat almost anything they come across. They eat carrion (dead animals), eggs and young of other birds, fruit, insects, fruits, and seeds. Just as Blue Jays are fond of acorns, and Pinyon Jays feed primarily on pinyon nuts, Canada Jays depend upon the seeds of pine cones in order to survive.

During the long, harsh winter, these conifer seeds make up most of the Jays' diet. They actually glue together masses of these seeds with their thick saliva and then cache them. That is, they store them away for later use. This winter survival tactic of caching is also practiced by ravens and other jay species. Studies have shown that corvids have remarkable memories. They have an uncanny ability to locate the vast majority of their cached food supply. Still, they don't find every seed they bury and, in this way, they unwittingly help replant the pines they feed on.

This behavioral adaptation of caching pine seeds, and their highly developed memory which enables them to find their caches, are the Canada Jays' key to winter survival in the Boundary Waters region. The deep snow would otherwise cover all of the pinecones and make it impossible to find adequate food supplies.

The PILEATED WOODPECKER--Dryocupus Pileatus

A variety of woodpecker species call the Boundary Waters their home. Downey, Black-Backed, Three-Toed, and the Northern Flicker can be seen, and heard, tap-tapping on trees throughout the region. Without a doubt, the most spectacular of these various woodpeckers is the red-headed Pileated species!

At 17 inches long, and with a 30 inch wingspan, the Pileated is by far the largest woodpecker in North America. It is nearly the same size as a crow and are almost entirely black with white neck stripes and white wing linings. Both sexes have the distinctive bright red head and a ''mustache'' which is red on the males and black on the females.

These beautiful birds live in the eastern half of the United States and southern Canada. They prefer dense, mature forests, but seem to have adjusted to human encroachment quite well. They are tolerant of disturbed habitat, and are often seen around parks, campgrounds, and resorts.

Pileateds are often heard long before they are seen. You may have heard their slow, noisy hammering and loud ringing call. You might have seen the large rectangular holes in trees and logs which these Pileated woodpeckers excavate with their beaks. Pileateds have been nicknamed ''logcock'' because it is frequently seen on the ground using its large beak to probe fallen logs and stumps for carpenter ants.

Like all woodpecker species, Pileateds have evolved unique physical characteristics which enable them to exploit food resources largely untapped by most other species. They are able to search the bark, branches, and trunks of trees for food other birds can't reach. Their most obvious adaptation is their sharp, chisel-like beak which enables them to search for food and to excavate its nest cavity, too. Their strong beak is specially mounted on its skull and cushioned to withstand the stresses of repeated hammering. They also have strongly develpoed neck muscles to drive their beak repeatedly into the wood.

Two other adaptations give woodpeckers a stable working platform which assists them in hammering away at a tree. Their arrangement of two front-facing and two-rear facing toes help them get a good grip on tree bark. Many other birds have three forward-facing and one rear-facing toes. This works great for perching, but won't help them hang on the side of a tree. And the Pileated's stiff tail feathers, strengthened by tough quills, are also strong enough to provide support and balance.

A woodpecker's tongue is amazing. It is very elastic and up to four times as long as its beak. It is mounted on elastic tissue and flexible bone which passes in two strips around the back of the skull and then over the tip of the head. It is anchored near its nostril. This spring-like device enables the woodpecker to extend and retract its tongue in the tunnels of wood-eating insects. A backward pointed barb on the tip of the tongue harpoons the grubs and insects and pulls them out as the tongue springs back into its mouth.

Pileateds and other woodpeckers use the same food gathering techniques in winter that they do in the summer. They don't have to compete for scarce food resources with other bird species which lack their beak and are unable to hammer away at insects hidden under the surface of the wood. Woodpeckers simply continue to chip out their daily meals. Pileateds will also scavenge carrion from road kills and winter-killed game. Around towns, Pileateds will also visit backyard bird feeders. They are fond of suet, peanuts, and cracked corn and the sight of a Pileated Woodpecker at a feeder is a birdwatcher's dream come true.

Now for two well known Boundary Waters birds which cope with the brutal winters by heading south.

The COMMON LOON--Gavia Immer

Loons are without a doubt the most widely recognized bird of the northern lakes. It's nearly impossible to enter any gift shop in Ely, Grand Marais, or along the North shore without being deluged by images of loons. There are loon post cards, refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs, T-shirts, stuffed animals, and some rather outstanding photographs of loons and their chicks.

A large, heavy-billed bird, loons are about 28-36 inches long. They have a black head and neck, with a striking white necklace on their throat. Their black body has white spots and its most notable feature is a ruby-red eyeball. Minnesota loons weigh about 7-9 pounds, while loons in New England can weigh up to 12 pounds.

Loons are members of the oldest surviving bird family on earth. Fossils reveal loons existed 40 to 50 million years ago. That is why loons appear first in field guides as the oldest and most primitive order. Today, Common Loons are found in Alaska, Canada, and the northern lakes in the U.S.

Because of their large webbed feet, and heavy bones, loons are great swimmers and divers and are sometimes referred to as ''feathered fish''. Unlike penguins, which actually fly underwater with their flipper-like wings, loons propel themselves under water with their feet. Their usual dive lasts for about 45 seconds, although when startled, they can remain submerged for 5 to 10 minutes!

A loon's body was designed for swimming as its legs are located far back on its body for greater propulsion while swimming. However, this makes it nearly impossible to walk and is why loons build their nests only a few inches from the water's edge.

The sight of loons flying overhead brings a smile to the face of visitors to the Boundary Waters. However, flying isn't easy for them. Most birds have very lightweight bones, which makes flying easier. The bones of a loon are dense however, which helps them submerge, but makes flying considerably more difficult. To become airborne, they must run across the surface of the water for up to a quarter mile. When flying, they hold their head and neck lower than their body. Once underway, they are strong flyers and fly at speeds of 80 mph. Ducks, on the other hand, average only 45-60 mph.

Most of a loon's diet consists of small fish, such as perch, suckers, sunfish, and minnows but they also eat some frogs and leeches. They require clear water in order to locate and capture their prey. Since they can't remain on the frozen lakes, they migrate south in late fall to the open water along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. During the winter spent on the ocean, loons eat rock cod, flounder, herring, and sea trout. Loons, and other seabirds, have a special salt gland behind their eyes. Salt from their ocean diet is excreted by this gland into the loon's nasal cavity, and then it drips off the bill.

It is interesting to note that during this winter vacation at sea, loons are unusually quiet. They make none of the yodels, wails, or tremolos that are so familiar to visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

In late summer, after their chicks are nearly raised, loons begin to gather in groups in what is believed to be social preparation for the upcoming migration. In late autumn, they gather in groups on the larger lakes and then fly together in large flocks. During this time, before migration, their beautiful breeding plumage fades to a dull gray. Loons also lose some of their feathers in the early fall. And then they molt their wing feathers in late winter when they are on the ocean. It takes 30-45 days to regrow their feathers, during which time they are unable to fly. Their new breeding plumage appears in March or April.

Common loons return to the northern lakes to establish their breeding territories as soon as the ice melts. How do loons along the Atlantic coast know when the ice melts in northern Minnesota? Scientists believe the increase in daylight, as spring approaches, stimulates the loon's metabolism and tells them it is time to return. Only the adults return, however, as the juveniles will remain along the coast for two or three years. These immature loons keep their gray plumage during this time and don't obtain their black and white plumage until they become adults and then head back up north.

The BALD EAGLE--Haliaeetus Leucocephalus

The Bald Eagle's Latin name translates into ''sea eagle with white head.'' And, in this case, ''bald'' means streaked or marked with white - not naked or featherless like the head of a vulture.

Nearly everyone recognizes the Bald Eagle as our national symbol. It was officially declared so by the Second Continental Congress in 1782. It was chosen because it was found only in North America and a native bird seemed a good choice for a new nation which had just won independence from English rule. Besides, eagles had been symbols of power and authority since Roman times. However, Ben Franklin objected to the choice. He believed the eagle was a bird of ''bad moral character''. He felt that the wild turkey was more dignified and had more character in that they didn't rob food from other birds!

Despite Franklin's objections, Bald Eagles are magnificent birds with a great deal of character indeed. The sight of an eagle swooping down from its perch to grab a fish is a special thrill for Boundary Waters visitors. At 30-43 inches long, Bald Eagles have a wingspan of 6-8 feet and the adults can weigh 8-15 pounds. As with many raptors, females are larger than males.

It takes immature Bald Eagles 4 years to achieve their adult plumage, with their white head and tail and dark brown body. Their yellow hooked beak is designed for tearing apart their prey and their yellow feet are tipped by strong talons for grabbing and holding their prey. The bottom of their toes have small spikes to help them grip slippery fish.

Bald Eagles first breed around age five and they usually mate for life. They are known for their spectacular courtship flight where the male dives at the females and sometimes they lock talons in midair and tumble towards the ground.

Eagles build their nests in tall trees near the water, usually 50-125 feet up. Eagle nests are huge structures and can be 7 to 8 feet across and 12 feet deep, weighing as much as two tons. They are lined with moss, grass, pine needles, and feathers. Since new sticks are added each year, they sometimes become so heavy they damage the tree and fall to the ground. The female lays 1-3 eggs, which hatch in 35-40 days. The eaglets grow quickly and fledge (fly) 72-75 days after hatching.

When it comes to finding food, Bald Eagles are sometimes hunters, sometimes scavengers; but they are always opportunistic. They need up to a pound and a half of meat each day and even more in the winter to furnish energy to stay warm. Their hunting territory is two to three square miles, depending upon how much food is available.

Fish make up over 50% of an eagle's diet. They take salmon, trout, pike, carp, and catfish. They have extremely keen eyesight and can see for up to two miles. They often perch in a tree next to a lake or stream for hours waiting for a fish to come into view. While they fly at speeds of 50-75 mph, eagles can reach 150-200 mph during a dive to capture their dinner. They swoop down over the water and grab a fish in their talons but don't plunge below the surface like a pelican or osprey. When spawning salmon are abundant, they will sometimes wade in shallow streams to pursue fish.

The feeding habits of Bald Eagles are far from majestic, a trait which upset Franklin even further. They harass osprey and gulls, forcing them to drop their fish, and steal meals from other birds. When fish are scarce, Bald Eagles will capture waterfowl such as ducks, coots, and shorebirds. Bird species make up a quarter of the Bald Eagle's diet. Mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and muskrats, account for 10-15% of their diet. The remaining percentage of their diet consists of turtles, crabs, and shellfish. Ever the opportunist, eagles also eat carrion and dead fish. Many people who fish the Boundary Waters know eagles will gladly dispose of fish heads and fish guts left on a rock outside camp.

Despite their distinction as the national symbol, Bald Eagles nearly became extinct more than once. Due to destruction of their habitat, hunting, and the devastating effects of DDT, their numbers fell dangerously low. Hunters were once paid a bounty to kill eagles in an effort to protect salmon. Before it was outlawed in 1940, hunters in Alaska alone killed over 100,000 eagles.

It was DDT, however, which nearly wiped out the Bald Eagle. In the years after WWII, DDT was used widely as an insecticide. It was inexpensive, effective, and didn't harm plants. For 20 years, it played havoc with eagles. It didn't kill them immediately but produced problems with their reproductive cycle. DDT became concentrated in the fish that eagles ate and consequently built up in the eagle's tissues causing reduced calcium formation vital for their eggshells. The shells became so thin that they broke during incubation. DDT also caused eagles to become infertile or produce deformed embryos. By 1962, scientists discovered that less than half of nesting eagle pairs produced any live young and fewer than 500 breeding pairs survived in the Lower forty-eight states. Canada outlawed DDT in 1970 and the US followed in 1972.

The Bald Eagle was placed on the Endangered Species list in 1973. Actually, it was listed as endangered in just 43 of the Lower 48 states. It was just listed as threatened in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington. A major effort to save the Bald Eagle succeeded. and eagle populations have rebounded to the point where it was downlisted from endangered to threatened in 1995. Happily, in 2000, it was ''delisted'', meaning it was no longer considered threatened. Today, there are about 100,000 Bald Eagles in North America and Minnesota alone had 618 nesting pairs in 1998.

Just like loons, Bald Eagles don't spend all year in the Boundary Waters. With the coming of fall, they begin to move to warmer regions in search of food. When the northern lakes freeze, they are unable to find fish. In addition, waterfowl migrate south and other food sources hibernate. Eagles which nest in the interior of Canada and northern Minnesota have to head south to survive. Many migrate along the Mississippi River or follow the shoreline of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan into the lower Midwest. As a result, the wintering population of Bald Eagles in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and Missouri is ten times higher than its nesting population.

These wintering eagles tend to congregate around rivers where locks and dams provide good fishing. There, the water remains open even when the rest of the river freezes. Fish injured going through the dam's turbines attract large number of Bald Eagles. They can also be found at warm water discharge lakes around power stations. Wildlife sanctuaries which provide refuge for wintering waterfowl also attract Bald Eagles.

Biologists have been able to track migrating eagles with radio transmitters. They have learned that eagles choose their fall migration routes to take advantage of thermals, updrafts, and food supplies along the way. During the fall, they tend to migrate slowly and may cover as few as 20 miles in a day and feed in a particular area for up to a week before moving further south. On their spring migration back north, eagles use a more direct flight. They can fly as far as 200 miles in a day. Just like human visitors to the Boundary Waters, Bald Eagles are anxious to get back Up North in the spring.

Birds have inhabited the Boundary Waters for millions of years. They have evolved and adapted to the climate and landscape of the region. Some have opted to remain all year and face the long and bitter winters. Others, instead, face the dangers of a migration to warmer areas. In either case, they will be there awaiting the tourists return. The next time you see a Canadian Jay, woodpecker, loon, or Bald Eagle think for a moment about their struggles to survive while you were away this winter. Perhaps you will have even a greater appreciation for these hardy Boundary Waters birds.


--article courtesy of

Bird Watching Bird Watchers List
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